Asterisk Web Design

American McGee’s Alice and artistic achievements in video game design

The trend to make video games more like movies has brought along more baggage than perhaps game creators intended–and that’s a good thing. For many years, video games basically looked, felt, and played the same. You had your hero, you moved him through a side-scrolling maze o’ enemies and at the end of each level, you’d encounter a boss. Level maps would either scroll left or up, you had to leap over holes in the ground, and powerups would come at inopportune times. For these games (I’m thinking of Contra, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Mario, Zelda, Bionic Commando…), the only substantial difference between them is the artwork. One is set in a fantasy world with odd and strange creatures, another is set in a different fantasy world with different odd creatures. Game creators didn’t think about aesthetic analysis or speak of their games with the same vocabulary one would use to discuss Chaucer or the films of Alfred Hitchcock. No, games were supposed to be fun, challenging at times, but entertainment none the less. These rules, however, no longer apply.

As the technology and innovation behind video games advanced, they began including cinematic sequences, more developed story lines, and allowed the player to be more creative in HOW they existed in the virtual world. Thus, games could no longer be defined by simple thematic differences but needed something more robust. Naturally, game makers began to think of their games in terms of genres, as their film counterparts had been doing for some time. Doom is horror, Call of Duty is realistic war simulation, Civilization is high-brow strategy. One could easily find films that would also fit these genres. Where games break from traditional cinema is clear to anyone: games are interactive and film is passive. This is why defining games by “genres” can only get one so far.

And then there are the games that become more than the sum of their parts. They become triumphs of a single creative idea realized with blistering clarity. You may wonder what I mean by this; simply that, films such as Rushmore, Rear Window, and Taxi Driver, take on the personality of their principle creator, so much that one can say, “yes, this is a Wes Anderson/Alfred Hitchcock/Martin Scorcese film.” As the craft of designing video games develops, naturally you have individuals that direct/impose their visions onto their games.

American McGee’s Alice is one such game. Our heroine is Alice, a deranged mental institution captive in a dark and twisted version of Alice in Wonderland setting. There is something compelling in taking a perfect little Victorian school girl and seeing just how unseemly she can be. The game is bloody, but not quite horror… it could be best described as a psychological thriller. The dialogue is deceptively menacing, the characters unsettling, and the whole experience puts one at unease. Again, this is a video game, remember? While playing, I keep wondering where the lines of reality blur into fantasy. Is Alice really crazy? If this game occurs all in her head, then what does it say to have her as the “heroine” of her own narrative? How far does the rabbit hole really go? While the graphic engine is a bit dated at this point, the games longevity is not because it looks super slick; no, it retains its playability because it touches on something deeper. The gameplay is challenging, yes, but you can become easily engrossed in this creepy and strange world.

This notion of becoming invested in a game and even identifying with a game’s main character is well understood by psychologists. Freud helped us understand our development in terms of identification in three stages: primary, narcissistic, and tertiary. I mention Freud here only to highlight that indeed we can easy identify with Alice; indeed she is the heroine. You are her animus, you are what makes her move. In American McGee’s Alice, we are asked to identify with the villain, similar to films such as Scarface. Yet here is where the game transcends to a new level: the game has manipulated you to feel a certain way. The game’s creator wanted you to feel unsettled by your co-dependent feelings towards Alice. And boy is it powerful.

American McGee’s Alice is a triumph in tone and in style and has bent and twisted the notion of video game genre as it has defiled Alice and Wonderland. You’ll probably see it laying around in a bargain basement sale and if you do, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It’ll grow on you, as it did me and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.